Behavioral flexibility of feeding dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) in Admiralty Bay, New Zealand



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Texas A&M University


Foraging theory suggests that hungry animals balance a complex set of costs and benefits when determining what and how to eat. Prey distribution, patch size, and the presence of conspecifics are important factors influencing a predator's feeding tactics, including the decision to feed individually or socially. Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) in New Zealand employ different feeding tactics in varying habitats and seasons. I used programmed survey routes and opportunistic sightings to examine the habitat use and feeding mechanics of dusky dolphins in Admiralty Bay, New Zealand, a protected shallow-water environment frequented by wintering dolphins. I encountered 253 dolphin groups, of which 58.5% were engaged in food-acquisition activities. Photographic efforts revealed a total of 177 individually-recognizable dolphins, 100 of which were returnees from previous seasons. Thirty-seven feeding groups and 70 bouts of feeding behavior were followed. Two-minute interval sampling as well as active acoustic sonar were used to test the hypothesis that diurnally-feeding dolphins would work in a coordinated manner to bring schooling fish to the surface. Feeding tactics observed in Admiralty Bay were then compared to foraging by some of the same animals in the unprotected, deep-water environment off Kaikoura, where large numbers of dusky dolphins feed during the night on organisms associated with a vertically-migrating scattering layer. Evidence supporting coordinated surface feeding was not statistically significant, but indicative of behavioral flexibility in feeding styles as part of a larger feeding repertoire. A potential shift in prey distribution from previous years may also explain some observed patterns. Feeding groups were positively correlated with seabirds and New Zealand fur seals (Arctocephalus forsteri). Mean group size of 6.1 (? 8.23 S.D., n=253) in Admiralty Bay is dramatically less than groups observed off Kaikoura, a variation likely reflecting differences in prey number and distribution, as well as differences in predation risk by deep-water sharks and killer whales. Behavioral flexibility likely confers an adaptive advantage for species subject to environmental fluctuation, whether due to natural or anthropogenic sources. Further research is necessary to evaluate prey distribution in Admiralty Bay and its possible effects on feeding dusky dolphins.